Do you celebrate the traditional way, or does your Thanksgiving Day take on a whole different twist? We asked some local folks how they spend the November holiday and to share some memorable stories from Thanksgivings past.
Many of the region’s residents celebrate Thanksgiving Day in the traditional manner: by feasting on turkey dinner replete with Mom’s stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans or carrots, pumpkin or apple pie, then settling in front of the television to cheer their favorite football team (or jeer the opponent) in a bowl game.
But as families move and separate and change, and as people increasingly seek ways to make the national holiday more in tune with their personal values, traditional Thanksgiving celebrations are giving way to more unconventional approaches. Perhaps the day begins with a 5K or 10K through the streets of East Sacramento (Run To Feed the Hungry draws more than 15,000 runners and walkers each year) and is punctuated by a shift serving turkey to the homeless at Loaves & Fishes. Maybe it’s a day spent raking leaves with friends before a lively dinner out. (Is anyone truly thankful to do a sinkload of dishes?) Or a day to rejoice in peaceful solitude, just saying “no” to battling traffic on the roads between here and the relatives’ house and instead devouring a good book beside the fire at home.
Whether their celebrations are traditional or not, the following Sacramento-area residents have one thing in common: Their Thanksgivings, while in some cases far from perfect, share a theme of laughter and fun, with a dose of gratitude thrown in for good measure.
Francie Dillon, a Sacramento-based children’s recording artist, invites her family every year to celebrate Thanksgiving in her small Curtis Park home.
The older house lacks many of the amenities that make it easier to cook and clean up after a large meal. “I don’t have a modern kitchen with a garbage disposal or dishwasher, but every year we squeeze in and make it quite an event,” Dillon says. “Each person brings the same assigned dish [every year]. My family-adopted uncle brings wine and homemade rolls, my cousin from San Francisco brings exotic beer, my younger niece brings a gourmet vegetable mix, and my brother from West Sacramento brings lemon meringue pie.”
Before dinner starts, Dillon insists that the family exercise at nearby Sierra 2 Center park. They play a variety of sports, including basketball and volleyball. Then they head back to the house to eat. Dillon’s small rooms must stretch to accommodate the 18 to 30 people who need to squeeze in to eat, so the modifications begin: The family hauls the sofa out onto the front porch to get it out of the way. Dillon, who has no large table for a sit-down dinner, takes down closet doors and sets them on wooden sawhorses to create a long makeshift table. She also sets up card tables and asks children to sit at a coffee table.
After dinner, everyone clears, washes and dries dishes in teams, then gathers to make music, a talent that runs in the family: Dillon’s younger brother is a Grammy-nominated professional musician and composer of world music. “We bring out the instruments—horns, guitars—and play,” says Dillon. “Those who don’t play sit around, listen and digest their food. It’s marvelous.”
Gathering of Many
Carol Titta, owner of Folsom-based Material Source Inc., hosts Thanksgiving dinner for people displaced by distance or economic factors that prevent them from returning home for the holiday. “It didn’t intentionally start out [that way],” she explains. “We invited family who had friends from other parts of the country with nowhere to go. They asked if it was OK to bring such and such a person and, of course, I said bring them. One year, we ended up with 70 people.”
Titta’s invitations include a request for guests to bring a dish that reminds them of a family member or home. The results create a diverse feast: multiple vegetarian dishes, varieties of fish and poultry, and Titta’s personal favorites: turkey with orange glaze and string beans with almonds and lemons.
With such a large crowd to feed and clean up after, Titta puts everyone to work. “Sometimes I ask them to set the table, build a fire, help with the kids, wash dishes, put things away in containers or organize the refrigerator,” she says. “I then take the leftovers to make a care package for each person to take home. Afterward, it’s always a good feeling to have taken care of everyone.”
One year, Rhonda Wilson, co-owner of Shingle Springs-based Endless Seasons Clothing Co., invited her 20-plus family members and six to eight close family friends to Thanksgiving dinner. She wanted to do something different, so she opted to barbecue the bird. Not being one to follow a recipe, she asked a few friends for tips, which they readily doled out. “I made a few mental notes about what not to do, wrote the menu a week before the dinner and assigned dishes to individuals,” she says.
Wilson explains that she felt very prepared the day of the dinner. She got up bright and early, fired up the barbecue, patted down the turkey, cleaned and prepped it with homemade stuffing, calculated the cooking time at eight hours, placed the poultry on the skewer and set it on the barbecue rack. She took great care to go outside once an hour to check and baste it.
“I hoped it would be ready by 4:30 or 5:30 p.m.,” she explains. “I felt proud throughout the day; my turkey looked great. My three sisters checked—it looked perfect. But then 4 p.m. rolled around and I pulled the turkey off. The outside looked beautiful, but the inside was unevenly cooked, pink in places, runny, bloody—gross. I wouldn’t eat it, much less offer it to my family and friends.”
Wilson’s crowd was hungry and cranky, so she acted quickly, heading to the freezer to pull out whatever steak and chicken she could find. “It turned out good,” she adds. “We had steak and chicken, mashed potatoes, cranberries and whatever stuffing I didn’t put in the bird. My grand idea flopped, but everyone was forgiving and left with full tummies.”
According to Gladys Cornell, principal of AIM Consulting in Folsom, her vegetarian lifestyle requires that she make some changes to common Thanksgiving recipes.
Despite following a plant-based diet, on most Thanksgivings, she and her family serve turkey. But a few years ago, she and her siblings decided to forgo the turkey, and Cornell assigned each family member the task of making a vegetarian dish. She asked her then-fiancé, Steve Pass, to make seitan stew for the main course, using a recipe from a vegetarian cookbook. “My poor husband wanted to impress the ‘nonmeat eaters,’” confesses Cornell, “but he had the hardest time finding the ingredients.” He drove all over Sacramento looking for one pound of seitan, a “sort of fake meat [made from wheat gluten],” she explains. “Finally, he went to the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op and found it.
“So we’re making seitan stew and this salad that requires this special salad dressing, which my cousin spends hours preparing,” Cornell recalls. “And I’m staring at the stew, thinking how dry it looks. My sister makes the same observation. She grabs the special salad dressing and dumps it on the stew. Did I mention the dressing had pomegranate seeds in it? So we had stew with squished pomegranate seeds.
“Next year, we made turkey.”
Mike Ziegler believes in going out of his way for others on Thanksgiving. Ziegler is president and CEO of Roseville-based PRIDE Industries, which employs people with disabilities. On Thanksgiving, some of PRIDE’s employees serve food at military bases that don’t close for the holiday. One year, Ziegler decided to go out and visit his employees on Thanksgiving. “I started working here in 1983,” he says. “Shortly thereafter, PRIDE began doing business with the U.S. Air Force. I thought it would be nice to visit each regional Air Force base to thank our workers. So I took my son [who is now 23] and traveled to McClellan, Mather, Travis and Beale.”
Employees and general military personnel always are glad to see Ziegler, who meets and greets everyone and stands side-by-side with his employees as they serve food. After a couple years of this, word of his visits spread to the higher-ranking officers. Gen. Chris Rousseau of Travis Air Force Base was so moved to see Ziegler come out to the base on Thanksgiving that he personally thanked him. “We became personal friends,” says Ziegler.
His holiday visits have become so commonplace that nearly everyone who works on base during Thanksgiving knows him. “It’s a special day for me,” Ziegler says. “I’ve also been taking my son with me since [he was] the age of 5 and many PRIDE employees and military personnel watched him grow up.”
Martha Kight, an actress who recently appeared at Murphys Creek Theatre in Twelfth Night and I Hate Hamlet, celebrates each Thanksgiving by hosting a dinner for “orphans,” as she says. She explains that many theater people find themselves miles apart from their families and have nowhere to go. So she “adopts” them, and between her and her best friend, Christian Bohm, who lives next door, they host a “wonderful Thanksgiving with their motley crew of dear friends.”
Since many of Kight’s friends come from diverse cultural backgrounds, they rarely eat a traditional turkey with all of the fixings. From year to year, the main course changes from salmon to numerous kinds of poultry including chicken and five-spice turkey. Side dishes have included sushi, a unique Chinese dish or two, Vietnamese food or a traditional English dish. “It’s an international Thanksgiving dinner,” she says.
As the guests arrive, introductions invariably begin with the phrase “Ladies and gentlemen, I present . . .” One year, as a female friend arrived, a male friend stepped up to introduce her and grandly swung out his arms, knocking “beautiful homemade harvest tarts right out of her hands and onto the floor,” says Kight. “She didn’t look happy, and there were these lovely tarts ruined and scattered all over the place.”
Dessert may have met a dramatic demise that year, but such theatrics usually enhance the celebration and induce never-ending laughter, says Kight. And what true thespian party would be complete without references to Shakespeare and other famous playwrights? “We all make references to lines from plays we have done,” she laughs.
Kight’s crew ends the day by staging theater bits and playing music. “In fact,” she says, “my dear beloved Erik Kleven, who recently passed away, and his son, Raul, played amazing bass guitar. Sometimes when Henry Robinett, a local jazz musician, arrived, they would play together. Erik sometimes played jazz and other times Woody Guthrie. We intend to continue the tradition, although we will miss Erik.”
Sometimes families make Thanksgiving a simply unforgettable date. Jim Gordon, a global sector manager for energy and retail at Folsom-based Intel Corporation, certainly did when he asked his then-girlfriend, Kelley Lacey, a registered nurse for the UC Davis pediatrics unit, to marry him. According to Kelley Gordon, it was an unexpected gesture at the end of a 13-hour workday at the hospital.
Kelley, who loves spending the holiday with patients, rushed in the door at home to clean up for dinner and passed her husband-to-be, who stood by the counter. Even though it was Thanksgiving, she expected they would whip up something simple to eat. “I asked him what he wanted for dinner and he asked what I wanted to drink first,” she says. “That’s when I noticed two glasses of Champagne and this little burgundy box sitting next to the glasses. I’m sure most women over the age of 30 know what little boxes mean.
“He finished pouring the Champagne, and I opened the lid to reveal a beautiful, classic round solitaire set in platinum,” she says. “I stood silent for a moment before I asked him if he had something to say. He said, ‘Yep, will you marry me?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ We slipped on the ring and toasted to a ‘Happy Thanksgiving’—and I don’t remember what we had for dinner.”
Is There a Tofurky Hotline?
The Dahlstroms decided to bake a faux turkey loaf, Tofurky, one year. Kim Dahlstrom, a Sacramento homemaker and mother to Iris, 2, Quinn, 8, and Sage, 12, assigned her father the task of cooking the faux meat. Electing to forgo reading the directions, he decided to “just stick it in the oven,” notes Dahlstrom.
In the meantime, Dahlstrom prepared the usual green beans, mashed potatoes, stuffing and rolls. With the rest of the dishes ready, Dahlstrom pulled out the loaf. “He didn’t know he was supposed to add water and cover it,” she says with a chuckle. “It looked like a coconut, with a hard-as-cement outside that once cracked open, was edible inside. We ate it anyway.”
Many years ago, Tamara Wilson, a public relations, marketing and event management consultant, wanted to host Thanksgiving at her first apartment, in Yuba City. “I had just moved out of the house for the first time,” she says. “I had this great idea to cook at my new apartment and celebrate. I had never cooked Thanksgiving before, but I was excited.”
She spent days inviting friends and family, studying menus and preparing her new home for guests. She got up early that morning to prepare the turkey, placed it in the oven and went back to bed. “I woke up later and went to check on the turkey. The oven wasn’t working,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it! It had been working just fine before. I intended to put on a big splash of a dinner, but I acted quickly, contacted my family and moved the entire dinner to my aunt’s house. It all worked out in the end.”
While researching this piece for Sacramento magazine, I recalled a Thanksgiving story of my own. My grandmother, who passed away about 20 years ago, hosted Thanksgiving at her retirement home at Don Pedro Lake. The unusually small, custom-built home had an enormous garage (where she stored her Polaris snowmobiles), a master bedroom, a narrow spare room, a huge open room that today we might refer to as a great room and one bathroom.
Grandma loved preparing and cooking Thanksgiving dinner and making pumpkin pie. This particular Thanksgiving went on as usual. We feasted on all of the traditional dishes and ate dessert, which included pie—apple, pecan and her famous pumpkin. My dad and I loved to eat multiple pieces of pumpkin pie, and we really helped ourselves that year.
Soon it was bedtime. Sleeping arrangements posed a challenge—the small house could not accommodate my large extended family. As a 14-year-old teenager low on the family totem pole, I was sent out to sleep in the 1980 Mustang hatchback. I begrudgingly moped out to the cold car, created a makeshift bed in the back and went to sleep.
About midnight, I burst awake, sick, sick, sick. I quickly released and pushed open the car door and threw up on the ice-cold ground. Freezing and feeling ill, I groaned and cried. Mom came out of the house and retrieved me, shivering and sick, and brought me inside. Then I realized poor Dad also was sick and so were my uncle and cousins. And there was only one bathroom! A collective rush to the bathroom ensued. I’ll keep the gory details to a minimum and just say that sickness was everywhere that night.
Later on, the sick people commiserated and realized the common culprit had to be the pumpkin pie. Grandma had poisoned us! To this day, I can’t look at pumpkin pie quite the same way.